A Dialogue Over Cycling

Two of my biking friends recently had unpleasant encounters with drivers. In one case, a car passed unnecessarily close to a cyclist, and he was concerned about being hit. That didn’t happen, but it upset my friend enough that he followed the car to the next stop sign, and started a dialogue about car-bike safety.

The driver didn’t take to it well, and my friend — one of the most mild-mannered folks you’d want to meet — thought it could have escalated to blows. He pulled away and continued his ride.

My other friend is naturally cautious while riding the roads, and most often stays on the suburban-style residential streets in our immediate area. But even there, problems can arise. At a stoplighted intersection, he had the green light and started across the intersection. An oncoming truck started to turn left across his path without signaling. My friend yelled and waved, and the truck stopped just five feet from him.

“I would have let it go at that,” he said. “But then he starts yelling at me like it was my fault. I had the right-of-way!”

He threw down his bike and started toward the truck with clenched fists. Believe me, you don’t want to tangle with him one-on-one. The truck driver figured that out, and drove on.

“What gets me is that some people figure if they’re in a motor vehicle, they’ve got the right of way,” my friend said. “They need to be better educated about the rules of the road regarding bikes.”

The guy in the first incident had another point of view. “We really need to start showing our neighbors who we are,” he said. “We’re just like them. We live in the same kind of houses, we work jobs — the only difference is, we choose cycling as a form of exercise or recreation.”

He suggested making an affirmative effort to talk to our neighbors about our biking, why we do it, how we hope cars behave around bikes, how they should expect bikers to behave around them.

People for Bikes, an organization that aims to promote cycling to more prominence in public discourse, offers the same idea in this video.


Others suggest that as more people ride, biking will become more a part of our culture. This article on Business Insider urges more commuting by bike.

I agree with all of the above. I’m just not optimistic that things will change much. Recently, the city laid chipped stone over a lane of one of the main streets in our area. As my wife was riding along that section, a pickup truck passed her, and spun his wheels to throw the stone-gravel mix at her. “Some people,” she said, “are just asshats.”

Hey! It’s Bike Month!

May 1st…a big day for bikers everywhere. According to the League of American Bicyclists, whose bash this is, we can celebrate the reasons we ride.

Let’s see…riding to work or school…nah, I live 30 miles from work, which happens to be at a school. Saving money or time…hm, I’ll be hitting the bike store in the next day or two to get some much-needed accessories. Hardly a money-saving visit. Preserving health or the environment…well, biking has been good for my health. My blood pressure is down, my resting heart rate too, my legs are awesome, if I do say so myself.

But my health has never been the main reason I ride. I ride for the fun of it. And you know what? I don’t need a special month for that. I ride year around, so Bike Month is every month for me.

Are you planning anything special for Bike Month?

Bicycling In Large North American Cities

What is it that prompts people to ride bikes more in some cities, while in others, biking lags noticeably behind? Two academics did a report on the topic for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and it comes up with an answer that we’ve heard before.

By the way, the report is fully two years old, so I’m not trying to call your attention to new findings. But it’s likely most Bike Noob readers haven’t heard of or seen the report, so its results could be of interest.

The two researchers, John Pucher of Rutgers University and Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech, aggregated cycling data from nine major North American cities over two decades, roughly 1990-2010. The cities in their study were Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Montreal, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington. Those were picked because they already had a strong biking culture. Other major cities such as Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Detroit and Memphis were deliberately left out, because of their low rates of bicycle commuting and cycling facilities.

The rate of cycling was higher in these cities than in the rest of the U.S. or Canada, at least doubling over the two decades of the study. But the percentage of female riders was down, falling from 32 to 23 percent in the years between 2001-2009. The age group that showed the largest increase in the rate of cycling was the 40-64 year olds.

Bike commuting was up in those cities, by 64 percent in the U.S. The percentage of commuters who use bikes rose from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent — a less impressive number.

Bike fatalities dropped in both the U.S. and Canada — by 66 percent up North, and 21 percent in the States. In fact, the researchers found the fatality rate in Canada to be a third of that in the U.S. Serious injuries also fell. Canada was down 40 percent, the U.S. 31 percent.

Perhaps the main finding of the study was that levels of bicycling positively correlate to the availability of bike lanes and/or bike paths. When cities have those amenities, cycling is three to four times higher than cities that do not. In surveys, cyclists indicated that they prefer segregated bike paths to bike lanes. Most cities have built both, and combining the two gives cyclists more flexibility in planning their trips. But cyclists were split on whether they prefer bike lanes or paths.

All nine cities in the study have been adding to their networks of bike lanes and bike paths. The study notes that bike lanes are growing at a faster rate than paths, by as much as ten times more in Chicago and New York, but even three times as fast in Washington and Minneapolis. “The increased focus on bike lanes,” write the authors, “might also reflect a shift toward promoting daily, utilitarian cycling, and away from the previous emphasis on recreational cycling.”

Cycle tracks, which are popular in Europe, are just starting to be built in North America. Cycle tracks are on-street bike paths separated from motor vehicle traffic by barriers. They’ve been built along some streets in New York, partly as a response to motorists who block bike lanes.

However, it’s the off-street bike paths that get the most use. Most of these are multi-use paths, and are mainly used for recreational cycling. Other bike amenities noted in the study are residential streets with traffic calming features (street narrowing, chicanes, speed humps) and bike boulevards, which give priority to bikes over cars.

The study is subtitled, “Lessons for New York,” and concludes that although New York has built the most bikeways in recent years, it has failed at integrating bicycling with public transit and bike parking.

The report concludes that while biking is enjoying growth, its growth is limited to the few dozen cities that have policies to promote cycling. In the U.S. South, from Texas to North Carolina, cycling rates are still extremely low. The cities that are undergoing a biking Renaissance offer great examples for other cities to follow.




Thankful for Cycling

“Oh, I need this,” cooed Pat, as we headed out from home on a Sunday morning ride.

“This” was a bike ride. We’d just gotten home late last night from four days on the road for Thanksgiving. It was great. We stayed with our son and daughter-in-law and our brand new grandson — our first grandchild. So, we had lots of time for family bonding, lots of time sitting around watching their 70-inch TV screen (some action scenes made Pat nauseous), and lots of time eating more than we should have. It was great.

I got out for a couple of walks. The first day we were there, I set out to circle a large soccer-baseball complex near their house, and found that there was no quick way to do it. I wound up walking about four miles, and in the unseasonably mild Minnesota weather, I was soaked through with sweat when I got home.

Saturday’s weather was more seasonal. I walked a little over a mile to see a bald eagle nest near their house, and was treated to the sight of two eagles — one that flew about 50 yards from tree to tree while I looked on. I was a lot more bundled up for this walk, with temperatures in the low to mid 20s (-3C) and a biting wind. But it was better than the previous day, when we went to the movies. While we walked from the parking lot to the theater, the 25 mph wind cut through our jackets, and without hats or ear protection, we were really cold.

Now, I know hearty northerners ride in these conditions. On my walk to the eagles’ nest, a cyclists passed me, bundled up in a heavy parka, thermal cycling tights, thick gloves, and a skull cap. Tough guy, I thought. But we’ve lived in Austin for 12 years now, and our blood must have thinned out. My personal cycling cutoff is at 40 degrees (4C), and I’m mighty chilly even at that temperature.

So our ride this morning was a pleasure. Even with a brisk south wind, we pedaled easily over to the Veloway and did some laps. Good crowd out there today. Pat has been dealing with some work-related challenges, and she was glad to get on the bike, because ideas and solutions seem to come to her much more readily while cycling than while poring over a computer screen in the home office. As they did today. When I peeled away from her a couple of blocks from the house to continue my ride, she was already eager to get back to try out some things that came to her on the ride.

I tackled some local hills, and found that the pounds I tacked on over the holiday made themselves felt. Okay, I slipped from my careful eating campaign, and I’ll have to renew my efforts in that regard. But to ride in a short-sleeved jersey and shorts on a 65-70 degree (20C) day in November is something I’m thankful for at this time of year.

I’m Through With Centuries

Now that the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred is done, I’ve had time to reassess my long-distance biking efforts. My conclusion: I’ve ridden my last century.

This represents a major turnaround in my thinking about cycling. When I started in mid-2007, I thought the goal would be to continually build mileage and do longer and longer rides. My first big organized ride was 50 miles, which was a major accomplishment then. It was quickly followed by a metric century, and a couple more 50s. My goal was to work my way up to an Imperial Century ride (100 miles).

I did my first one in October, 2008. In 2010, I did two of them — one on the first day of the MS 150 from Houston to Austin, the second a repeat of the 2008 ride. The Hotter ‘n Hell was my fourth.

I realized after the first one that no matter how many centuries you have under your belt, these are challenging rides. If done well, the rider will have prepared for the rides with adequate training — including building up to the 100-mile distance by working in some long rides in the month immediately before the century. And by long rides, I don’t mean 45 or 50 miles — or even 65 miles. I mean 75 or 80-mile rides.

Interval training helps, too, because when you build up your speed you’re also adding to your endurance. It’s easy to go online and find lots of training plans for century rides, both for beginners and for riders who want to finish strong — maybe post a personal best.

For others, century rides are just the beginning. The shortest distance randonneurs ride in a sanctioned brevet is 200 kilometers — about 125 miles. But they’ll do 300K rides (180 miles), 400K (250 miles), and 600K (375 miles) — all in one year. I read several randonneuring blogs, and I admire the fortitude and stick-to-it-iveness of randonneurs. But while I once thought that might be where my own cycling would be heading, I know it’s not now. The accomplishment of riding a 300K ride isn’t important enough to me.

My friend Barbara, whom I mentioned in my account of the Hotter ‘n Hell, has an ambitious goal: to ride a century in each of the 50 states. Go for it, Barbara! I won’t be joining you.

My problem is that I prefer the idea of the century ride more than the doing of the century ride. I have never yet put together a training program that really got me prepped for the ride. That meant that when I got there, I was able to finish the 100 miles, but I was worn out at the end. After the latest 100-mile extravaganza, I wondered why I did this kind of thing.

And I came to the conclusion that I don’t need to. Most of the group I participated with in the HHH last weekend did the 100 kilometer version. These folks are all experienced cyclists, and most of them have done centuries in the past. They’ve just reached that point in their cycling that four hours on the bike — the time it takes to finish a metric century at roughly a 15 mph average — is challenge enough for them. And you know what? I think that describes me, too.

So I intend to keep riding. I’ll bet I continue to put up mileage totals similar to what I’m doing this year. I’ll ride hills — I’ll even practice to get better on them. I’ll do speed work occasionally. My long weekend rides might increase their distances, and I’ll work in more in the 50-mile plus range. But from here on out, my cycling is going to be fun, not work.

Biking 1964

I call this blog “Bike Noob” with tongue firmly in cheek, because I doubt many of us are truly noobs on the bike. We had them as kids, didn’t we?

When I was growing up, my best friend  was a guy named Steve. He lived up at the end of our block. We did everything together, including bike riding. He recently sent me a picture he’d dug out of an old photo album. Suburban Chicago, we think about 1964.

Click to embiggen.

Yep, that’s the Noob on the left, in all of his 13-year-old geekiness. I’m perched atop a Royce-Union three-speed, what we used to call a “racer” bike, because they were so sleek and light and fast compared to…well, compared to the Huffy my friend Steve is on.

Cable routing seems to be an issue for me, although I was blithely unaware of it at the time. The prominent white cable that swoops down and back leads from the headlight to a rear wheel-mounted generator — the kind that spins against the tire sidewall to power the light. It worked great, too. That light threw a nice bright beam. The shifters were twist grip. It would be a fun bike to have today, for toodling around town.

You’ll notice Steve is no slouch either when it comes to lighting. His Huffy has dual headlamps mounted at the end of his frame tank. Very stylish, in a 1960s Detroit Iron kind of way.

Two highlights of our bicycling occur to me.

We raced. Oh, yes. We’d go over to an elementary school a couple of blocks away, and race our bikes on the asphalt playground, using the borders of the two basketball courts as our “track.” Because the space around and between the courts was pretty narrow, we had a special rule: The lead bike picks the route. You could take a Figure-8 around the courts, or a big circle. You could go clockwise or counterclockwise. This made it imperative to pass whenever possible, or you wouldn’t have any idea which way the other guy was going to turn. At least once every race, one of us would lose control and crash. Helmets? Never heard of ‘em.

About this time, we also got adventurous and made regular trips to a discount department store that always had good prices on model cars and such. The store was two towns away from ours, and we charted a route through back streets and side streets, until finally coming out on a busy thorofare about a mile from the store. The trip was about five miles one way. I even recall a challenging hill on our route. We’d fly down it on the way out, but have to struggle up it, carrying our purchases, on the way back.

I never really stopped biking. Sure, there was the hiatus after getting my drivers’ license. But I had two bikes during my college years (both of which were stolen from me) that I rode to class and took on excursions out into the country on weekends. My wife got me a Raleigh ten-speed for my 30th birthday, and we did some riding on bike trails throughout our adult lives. It was only with the purchase of my current bike that I threw myself into “serious” cycling. But I’m still learning.

Bikeable Roads

For the past few days, we have been on the road (in the car) to attend a reunion of sorts in Illinois. Maybe because I have not been on the bike, I’ve been noticing roads in the areas we’ve passed through, with an eye to their bikeability. And I’ve gotta say, there are some areas out there where bikers have it rough.

The thing that makes for rough biking is a lack of shoulders on roads.  Most of the roads we took were two lane, heavily trafficked, with no shoulder. I wouldn’t take a bike on them on a bet. The roads were hilly and curvy, which would have made for great riding in other circumstances. But on these roads,  cars and trucks moved at more than 55 mph, leaving little chance to react if they should suddenly come upon a bicycle.

As if to add support for this notion of unbikability, I saw only two cyclists in five days. They were a bike touring couple, loaded with panniers, slogging up a hill on a U.S. highway that did have a generous shoulder.

The areas I paid most attention to are in northwestern Arkansas and southern Illinois. Maybe there are cycling groups there, and I hope if that’s they case, they check in with some good routes in those locales.

How about where you are? Is there an overabundance of roads that are designed for motor traffic only, with no consideration of cyclists? I’ve got a few gripes about my home, Austin, Texas, but on the whole, I’ve got plenty of alternatives for riding. The places I’ve been on during this short vacation — not so much.

Different strokes

Last month, after I Twittered about riding five days in a row for the first time since July, I got a reply from my friend Mike Weiland (@weiland):  @bikenoob How different our styles are, I think I’ve gone 3 days in a row without riding. That was my offseason last month.

Mike Weiland

Mike and I started riding our road bikes at about the same time, a little less than three years ago. He was one of the first people to contact me when I started this blog, and was excited about starting to build mileage and tackle some challenging rides.

We’ve met up several times at organized rides, but we’ve never actually ridden together. That’s because since we first made contact, our cycling paths have diverged. Mike’s an athlete — hockey player, mountain biker — and he’s set his sights on getting fast. On the organized rides, he’s either ridden longer routes than me, or took off quickly enough that he was out of my sight within a few minutes of the start. He’s also a lot younger than me — in his mid-30’s.

I’ve been interested in following his progress since then. Last year, he rode and finished Austin’s notorious Tour das Hugel (Tour of the Hills), 108 miles of the area’s toughest climbs. This year, he decided that if he was going to ride it again, he would do more than just survive. So throughout the year, I was treated to Tweets about his lunchtime hill repeats, his long hard weekend rides, his personal time trials on grades I won’t go near. He achieved his goal, and finished the Hugel an hour and a half faster than in 2008.

He also got interested in road racing. He’s still a Cat 5 racer, but is intent on working up to Cat 4. His races last year were experience builders, and he showed improvement each time he was out. Now, when he meets up with an area shop ride on the weekends, they know him by reputation, and he’s usually somewhere near the front, pushing the pace.

My cycling path took me the other way. I started riding because my knees were shot from running. I ride for fitness, but mostly, I ride because it’s fun. I don’t have an athletic background, and I’m not about to train rigorously. I’ve enjoyed riding in organized events, especially my first century ride, so I do try to push beyond my comfort zone from time to time. Still, my idea of a good ride is a 30-40 mile jaunt on Sunday mornings with the B group in my club, followed by a half-hour of chatting over coffee.

Riding five days in a row in December was worth a tweet, I thought. And when Mike responded the way he did, I had to laugh. Biking is different things for each of us — and it’s probably different yet for anyone reading this — and that’s just fine. As we plunge into the New Year, let’s think about what cycling means to us — and resolve to keep it fun, no matter what kind of riding we do.

Giving Thanks

Yes, it’s way past Thanksgiving, but guest poster Jeff Hemmel looked back on 2009 and found another round of gratitude is not amiss.

‘Tis the season for all those “look back on the year that was” articles, so what the heck, I might as well jump in with my own season highlights. After all, 2009 was a big year for me, the year I finally ditched my trusty hybrid and transitioned to what I had lusted after for years — a sleek new road bike. I’ve learned a lot in the last 365 days, some of which I’d just as soon forget, but other things that have made all the difference in the world.

So I guess it’s time to give thanks to…

CamelBak’s Podium Bottle — Yeah, I thought it was a gimmick when I saw the first ad. Then I bought one, and realized that no longer did my sticky Gatorade mix drip all over my clothes and bike, or spill in the car. Then I bought an insulated model, and realized another thing — the CamelBak’s plastic is really soft and easy to squeeze. That makes it the easiest of all my bottles when I need to take a quick drink and stay with the pack. Little details, sure, but they make a big difference.

Continental’s Grand Prix 4000 Tire — I got my road bike at Christmas last year. By spring, my tires were picking up garbage left and right. In one seven-day span, I got five — count ‘em — five flats. That’s when I found the well-reviewed Continental Grand Prix 4000s for ridiculously cheap prices on ProBikeKit.com. I don’t want to jinx myself by stating the obvious, but let’s just say flats have not been an issue since. That’s eight months of riding some pretty littered roads.

Lezyne’s Pressure Drive — It’s not getting much use anymore, but during my “flatting period,” this little mini pump got a serious workout. I bought it after a good review in Bicycling, and the editors were right on the money. This tiny pump can inflate up to some serious pressures, and won’t kill you in the process. Sure, CO2 might be simple, but I can always count on the Lezyne.

Twitter — Where else can you eavesdrop on the lives of your favorite professional cyclists? Thanks to Twitter I know what Christian VandeVelde was thinking during his accident-filled spring, checked out cool training photos from Levi Leipheimer, and got Lance Armstrong’s uncensored thoughts on Alberto Contador. Geeky, yes. Fun? Absolutely.

Pearl Izumi — I know it’s just personal preference, but every pair of shorts I get from Pearl Izumi just fits right and feels good. I’ve tried a few other brands, but they always seemed to have some weird bagginess somewhere, or a funky chamois. PI hasn’t let me down. Of course, it helps that I’ve never had to pay retail, but rather found deals on eBay or the Pearl Izumi Outlet store…

Oakley Radars — Attention blog police, I got these for free. That said, they’re still the best glasses I’ve ever ridden in. They’re super lightweight, the lenses are awesome and distortion-free, and they stay put, whether I’m sweating in the typical Florida heat and humidity, or like yesterday, wedging them over a chill-blocking headband. Yes, you can get a lot of glasses cheaper…but I’m not so sure you can get any better.

My Bike Computer — Yeah, it’s a love/hate relationship, but my computer keeps me challenged, and helps me track my progress. It was fun actually seeing those triple digits at the completion of my first century, it’s useful to know how many miles I’m putting on my body and bike, and yes, it’s occasionally annoying to know I’m perhaps not going to be able to keep the pace I hope. But still, I can’t imagine leaving the driveway without it.

My Road Bike — I was already a pretty dedicated rider, but my Trek 2.1 has just allowed me to take things to another level. I’ve explored far beyond my previous riding area, pedaled way more miles, done group rides I could never have joined in before, and just had so much more fun in the process. And with a road bike under me, I’m even completely comfortable venturing out in public in skintight Lycra.

My Wife And Kids — My wife gave me that bike, something I talked endlessly about, but never wanted to spend the money on myself. And she bought it with money she had stashed aside for something for herself. That’s the spirit of Christmas. She and my kids are also very supportive about me getting out and riding it, even coming to the recent MDA Challenge to cheer me — and everyone else — on. To them, hopefully I return the favor with a much happier and healthier Dad. I’ll be 47 soon, but I aced my most recent physical.

And Ray — The Bike Noob is his blog, not mine. But in a year that’s been more than challenging for a so-called “professional” journalist, the Bike Noob gave me the chance to write about something I love, and do it for pure enjoyment.

Thanks one…and all.